The Downing Street spin machine was furiously back-pedalling this morning over David Cameron’s plans to hold back the tide of immigration from other EU countries.
Number Ten spinners had told us – via an article in The Times last Thursday morning - to expect a “game-changer” in an upcoming speech by the Prime Minister. There was “speculation” it would involve an “emergency brake” on immigration for the EU.
Later the same day, Cameron boldly spoke in Rochester - where the Tories are in a bitter fight to the death with Ukip in the 20 November by-election - of having “one last go” at negotiating a deal with the rest of Europe to limit immigration. This implied that he was prepared to countenance Britain pulling out of the EU if he failed to get his way.
Since then, Downing Street spinners have been in action again, feeding the Sunday Times the line that a good way to reduce EU immigration would be to impose an annual limit on the number of National Insurance numbers being handed out to low-skilled immigrants.
“Under plans being drawn up in Downing Street”, we were told, those NI numbers that were issued would only be for a short term, thus preventing people coming to the UK for jobs and then claiming tax credits “indefinitely”.
This cunning plan would, said the Sunday Times, be a “centerpiece” of the speech Cameron was planning to make shortly to inspire Tories in Rochester and Strood not to vote Ukip.
Now, the back-pedalling in Downing Street is so furious that there may not be a EU immigration speech at all, while all the talk of caps and quotas is being dismissed as mere media “speculation”.
Suddenly, Cameron’s “game-changer” looks less like David Beckham scoring with a miracle shot from the half-way line and more like Mario Balotelli blasting the ball over the empty net from five yards.
Why? Because the outgoing President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso made it clear on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday that stopping migrants flouted one of the founding principles of the EU and would be illegal under Brussels law.
"Any kind of arbitrary cap seems to me not to be in conformity with European rules," he said.
Barroso also made the point that if Britain insisted on leaving Europe it would end up with “zero” influence, unable to negotiate with the US and China “on an equal footing”.
Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, backed Barroso on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. “I do agree – it’s very much in British interests that we retain our position in Europe… any attempt to cast doubt over that will seriously impede our economic recovery.”
Cable said there was support in Europe for stopping benefit tourism within the EU, “but what the Prime Minister and others are saying is more far-reaching than that, which is that we stop people moving around to work, which is at the heart of the principle of the single market…”
Cable pointed out that it was Margaret Thatcher – who Tory eurosceptics regard as a saint – who made the single market in Europe her “biggest single negotiating achievement”.
Downing Street’s hand-brake turn left Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, sounding totally bemused this morning. “Downing Street are now telling us there may not be a speech at all, and all these ideas you have been hearing about are ‘speculation’…”
Robinson said it was “quite telling” that two leading arch-critics of the government, eurosceptics John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin, now appeared to be acting as the spokesmen for Cameron on his European policy. “The policy has shifted dramatically towards the eurosceptic right but in a way that cannot be delivered,” said Robinson.
Kenneth Clarke, the veteran pro-European former Cabinet minister, delivered a similar warning to Cameron at a private meeting of Tory MPs last week. Clarke is reported to have “growled” that by talking up immigration Cameron was playing into Nigel Farage’s hands.
He argued the Tories should not try to out-Ukip Ukip and attempt to satisfy the public’s “insatiable appetite” for action on immigration. Instead, he said, the Tories should be concentrating on the economy.
His warning could not have been more apt: Ukip leader Nigel Farage is already wallowing in Cameron’s discomfort.
“Barroso's comments fatally compromise PM's pretence that he can do anything to stop large numbers of EU migrants coming to the UK,” Farage tweeted this morning.
In an earlier tweet, he wrote: “I'd like to thank Barroso for making it crystal clear that free movement of people is a non-negotiable part of EU membership.”
In short, Cameron has been exposed yet again for pandering to short-term headlines while destroying his own credibility on Europe in the long-term.
He did it with his “over-my-dead-body” opposition to Jean-Claude Junker becoming Commission President: Juncker is the new president, and will be no warmer to Britain over its immigration concerns than his predecessor, Barroso.
Now Cameron is being forced again by his party’s eurosceptics towards a commitment to campaign for Britain to pull out of the EU if he fails to make headway in Brussels – even when his personal belief is that British must remain an EU member. ·